Startups Create Advanced Tracking of Users Across Devices

Smartphones can collect massive amounts of personal information, such as where users go, what they buy, and when they go to sleep. But current Web browser tracking software has become less effective for ads and cannot follow users across their devices. Based on the shift toward mobile, tech and advertising companies are looking into new ways to track consumers on their tablets and phones, while targeting them with specialized ads across all devices.

“Drawbridge is one of several startups that have figured out how to follow people without cookies, and to determine that a cellphone, work computer, home computer and tablet belong to the same person, even if the devices are in no way connected,” reports The New York Times. “Before, logging onto a new device presented advertisers with a clean slate.”

“We’re observing your behaviors and connecting your profile to mobile devices,” said Eric Rosenblum, chief operating officer at Drawbridge. “Tracking is a dirty word.”

Drawbridge was founded by Kamakshi Sivaramakrishnan, former Google data scientist and formerly of Google’s mobile ad network called AdMob. Drawbridge has matched 1.5 billion devices and can deliver mobile advertising based on websites a person has visited on a separate computer. Other companies, such as Flurry, Velti, and SessionM are following suit, while Google Chrome, Facebook and Amazon mobile apps can track what users search, buy or post when logged in.

Until recently, advertisers used browser cookies to track users on their computers and mobile phones, but cookie technology has become less effective as more PCs and mobile browsers are blocking them. As a response, the Interactive Advertising Bureau created a study group to investigate the future of the cookie and more relevant alternatives.

By not having sophisticated tracking, “running mobile advertising is like throwing money out the window,” suggests Ravi Kamran, founder and chief executive of Trademob, a mobile app marketing and tracking service. “It’s worse than buying TV advertisements.”

Drawbridge has partnerships with various online publishers and ad exchanges, and sends them a notice each time a user visits a website or mobile app. The company monitors the notifications for behavioral patterns and utilizes statistical modeling to find the probability that multiple devices belong to the same person and assign them an anonymous tracking identifier.

The company Flurry has embedded its software in 350,000 apps on 1.2 billion devices to assist app developers in tracking things such as usage. It has recently released a real-time ad marketplace in order to send advertisers anonymous profiles of users the moment they open an app.

There are concerns from privacy advocates that consumers may not be aware of how much personal information is on their mobile devices and how easily they can be tracked. Further focus on tracking also comes with the public debate on data privacy and government surveillance.

“Neither state nor federal law prohibits the collection or sharing of data by third parties,” notes NYT. “In California, app developers are required to post a privacy policy and to clearly state what personal information they collect and how they share it. Still, that leaves much mystery for ordinary mobile users.”